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What is Engagement?

Engagement is the first step that we take when beginning MI, and it can often be the most important one. Think about your favorite teacher while you were in high school. Why did you like them so much? Was it because they were a humorous or kind individual? Maybe you respected their grasp of the knowledge they were giving you? Perhaps they just understood you and made you feel important? It was likely a combination of multiple factors, but the most important reasons may be that you trusted them and that you felt that they understood you. As a mentor, the purpose of engaging is to allow your mentee to feel the same way towards you.

During engagement, the mentor tries to establish a positive rapport with their mentee that is focused on a feeling of mutual trust and respect.

When does engagement start?

Engagement can begin with the first conversation between you and your mentee. Right away, your mentee will begin forming thoughts and opinions about you, whether you “get” them, can be trusted, and whether or not you are actually going to listen to them.

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Blaming Trap

A lot of time may be spent on figuring out who is to blame for the problems that your mentee is experiencing. In MI, blame is irrelevant. It is better to focus on what can be done about the problems than who is at fault.

Expert Trap

As the Mentor, your mentee may see you as the person with all of the answers to their problems, or you may actually feel that way. This may lead to you dominating the conversation, and to more passive behavior on the part of the mentee.

Chat Trap

Spending too much time off-topic can prevent the process from moving forward, and may even derail progress.

Premature Focus Trap

This is where the mentor can get ahead of themselves in trying to transition to the other stages of MI by developing a focus too soon. This can lead to focusing on the first problem that the mentee brings up, but neglects the most pressing concerns.

Assessment/Q&A trap

This happens when the mentor starts the conversation by asking too many rapid-fire questions about the mentee’s problems, instead of letting the conversation flow more naturally. Similarly, when too much time is focused on asking questions, the conversation can easily fall into a Q&A session, leading the mentee to a more passive role in the conversation.


Disengagement occurs when either of the parties involved either lose interest in the relationship/process(Passivity), or actively works against the relationship/process(Sustain). This can occur due to participants falling for the common communication traps as discussed in the prior tabs, as well as if the mentor has failed to establish equally trusting and communicative relationship with the mentee

Watch this video for the basics on good listening:

What not listening looks like

Listening is a fundamental backbone to Motivational interviewing, as the goal is to understand your mentees’ struggles from their perspective.

When someone isn’t actively listening during a conversation, several signs and behaviors may indicate their lack of engagement or attention. These signs include:

  1. Lack of Eye Contact: They avoid making eye contact and frequently look away from the speaker.
  2. Distractions: They seem preoccupied with their surroundings, such as checking their phone, fidgeting, or looking around the room.
  3. Interrupting: They frequently interrupt or interject with their thoughts or opinions before the speaker has finished.
  4. Minimal Verbal Responses: They provide short, one-word responses or minimal acknowledgment, indicating disinterest.
  5. Repetitive Responses: They keep repeating the same phrases or questions, showing that they are not actively processing the information.
  6. Non-Verbal Cues: Their body language, such as crossed arms, slouched posture, or sighs, suggests disinterest or impatience.
  7. Multi-Tasking: They engage in other activities while supposedly listening, such as typing on a computer or watching TV.
  8. Daydreaming: They appear lost in thought, and their facial expressions may not match the topic of conversation.
  9. Changing the Subject: They frequently divert the conversation away from the speaker’s topic to discuss something unrelated.
  10. Ignoring Non-Verbal Cues: They fail to respond to the speaker’s non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions or gestures.
  11. Apathetic or Bored Expression: Their facial expressions convey boredom or disinterest, with a lack of emotional engagement.
  12. Checking the Time: They frequently glance at their watch or clock, signaling impatience.

It’s important to note that people may display these signs unintentionally or temporarily due to various factors, such as fatigue, stress, or distraction. However, consistently exhibiting these signs during conversations can indicate a chronic lack of active listening and may hinder effective communication and rapport-building.

To minimize these signs, pay attention while you’re listening to your mentee!

Communication Roadblocks

There are a variety of responses that a mentor may use that may serve as roadblocks to communication. When this happens, your mentee will have to either address the the roadblock or go around it in order to get back to their own train of thought. Roadblocks may include:

  • Giving advice, making suggestions, or providing solutions
  • Persuading with logic, arguing, or lecturing
  • Ordering, directing, or commanding
  • Warning, cautioning, or threatening
  • Telling people what they should do or moralizing
  • Agreeing, approving, or praising
  • Disagreeing, judging, criticizing, or blaming
  • Shaming, ridiculing, or labeling
  • Interpreting or analyzing
  • Reassuring, sympathizing, or consoling
  • Questioning or probing
  • Withdrawing, distracting, humoring, or changing the subject

OARS micro-skills

MI requires a relationship where the mentee feels safe to explore their own ambivalence and move towards change. This relationship must be built on a foundation of trust and respect. Although this sounds challenging, many aspects of this relationship can be achieved by utilizing OARS micro-skills.

Learn more about the OARS:

Open-ended Questions

Mentors can use open-ended questions in order to discover what is important to their mentee. These questions often avoid short answer responses like yes or no, which would be associated with closed questions.

  • What do you think of when it comes to change?
  • What about school are you finding difficult?
  • What about this do you find difficult?
  • What do you enjoy about the friends you have been making?
  • Do you want to change?
  • Is school going well?
  • Is this hard for you?
  • Have you been making friends?

Affirmations are an important form of emotional support in MI. It is incredibly important that statements of appreciation, understanding, and even admiration are grounded in specific behaviors or qualities of your mentee. Otherwise, they can come across as inauthentic or empty.

Reflective Listening

Reflective listening is potentially the most important OARS skill when it comes to using MI successfully. This is accomplished by the listener serving as a reflection for the speaker’s words. They listen to what the person has to say, and then reflect back those words and feelings at the speaker in the form of a statement. While this can sound pretty easy, it can take a lot of practice to do correctly, and thus the following must be considered anytime reflective listening is used.

Types of reflections

There are two types of reflections that you can utilize, Simple Reflections and Complex Reflections.

Simple reflections are just that, a simple paraphrase of what the person you were listening to just said.

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Complex Reflections are much deeper than simple reflections. These reflections attempt to guess at the meaning or emotion underlying what the speaker said.

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Why use Reflections?

Reflecting back your understanding of what your mentee is saying can be helpful. This gives your mentee the opportunity to correct any misconceptions and reassures them that you are both on the same page.

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Ratio of Reflections

A skilled practitioner of motivational interviewing will know the correct amount of reflections to use to achieve the desired affect in conversation. Typically, this ratio is 3:1 where the listener will reflect 3 times for every 1 question that they ask the speaker. This means that a large chunk of your time speaking consists of reflections.

This can be somewhat difficult, but with plenty of practice the ratio becomes second nature.

Why a statement?

When a mentor makes a statement, this allows the mentee to acknowledge it with a simple head nod or “yes” and then continue on with their train of thought. By contrast, If a mentor asks a question the mentee must respond to it, which can disrupt their train of thought.

Effective reflective listening leads to a conversation where the speaker is speaking for longer and generating more momentum for change. It also provides opportunities for your mentor to acknowledge and normalize their ambivalence in a safe, comfortable way.


Summaries allow us to look back on the conversation and highlight specific aspects of the mentee’s experiences that they have shared with you. In essence, summaries are multiple reflections that are tied together. These can demonstrate just how well you have been listening to your mentee, as well as allow them the ability to hear their experiences back. This helps them understand how their own experiences fit together.

As such, just like with reflections, there are multiple types of summaries. These are Collecting Summaries, Transitional Summaries, and Linking Summaries which are described here:

Collecting Summaries

This type of summary pulls together the information that the mentee has shared.

Transitional summaries

This type of summary pulls together information about important aspects of the conversation to either wrap it up or change direction to a new one.

Linking Summaries

This type of summary links together what your mentee is saying with something else that you have learned about them, either through another conversation or information source.